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No beast so fierce: Richard III lives, on stage in Almeida’s film

August 16, 2016

In this cinematic Shakespeare’s Richard III from London’s Almeida Theater, the production opens with an open grave, an archaeological dig from which the twisted backbone of the real Richard III held up to light. Sliding glass panels slide over the grave, covering it for the scenes to follow. But the grave is always in sight, open and waiting.

It takes a moment to become accustomed to the black business suits, the starkly modern lighting, and the cell phones, all of them a jarring imposition of the modern on to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan phrasing. But it is only a moment, and we are caught up in a world of treachery, deceit, and hunger for power not so different from the one we inhabit today.

Ralph Fiennes is impeccably cast. From the moment he hobbles onstage, drooling and bent, he is King Richard III, and evil incarnate is not long in showing his face. His brother Edward is the new king, weak of constitution, an easy target for the hunchback who would be king. When minions carry onstage the shrouded bones of King Henry VI, dead like his son Edward the Prince of Wales, by Richard’s hand. The widow Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) has entered with the cortege to mourn her loss, and here follows one of the most sexually charged seductions committed to cinema. One mad with grief, one simply insane, they spit and fight with mounting fury, until the one with no reason prevails. There is no consummation here, but Richard has shown his hand—he will stop at nothing to satisfy the hunger of his insatiable desire for dominance.

Every scene that now unfolds reveals the breadth of that hunger, and the depth of his duplicity. The deceit is unrelenting. No one is spared, neither the innocents caught up in his deceit, nor his willing accomplices in all this. His own brother Clarence, his young nephews and heirs to the throne, Lady Anne who he seduced and slew, even his loyal henchmen Hastings and Buckingham, one by one they fall to his hand. Victims innocent or led by their own treachery to Richard’s hand. Only Richmond and Stanley get away.

It is the women who give this play its touches of humanity. They see what the men cannot, and love what no man can. Aislίn McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth, widow of Henry and the mother of Lady Anne, especially stands up to the ogre, face to face and voice to voice in the long and grueling scene that ends in her rape. The monster stops at nothing. Dominance is everything to him, his beginning and his end. This is a lesson for our own times as well.

The claustrophobic set design helps to reinforce this point. Subtle hints abound. A background of round stone wall—the tower of London, the ultimate prison shielded at times by scrims and curtains—lit from a recessed corona above.

One point that was sorely missed was the one possible glimmer of redemption through self-awareness that at least becomes possible in Richard’s final soliloquy, “I am loved by no one, I love no one.” Absent this rare, almost touching possibility, his words become yet another rant of self-pity. The audience is too worn out by his slimy words to care anymore. This monster has no humanity at all, he has become not even just another monster in a cruel world, but a caricature of one.

In the final battle scene, Richmond of the halo of golden hair prevails. Richard fights with all the fury of his madness, but cannot save himself. Three times he offers up his kingdom for a horse, three times he is denied. He falls, face forward, into the waiting grave. England is saved and all will be well.

The film has shown but a few times at the Rafael, its brief run is now ended. It is well worth seeking out, in PBS listings or streaming video if available. It was made for the big screen, and best watched on the largest screen you can find. Its chilling conclusions on the uses of power cannot be overmagnified.

Theatrical Prodduction: Almeida Theatre, London

Artistic Director Rupert Goold

Casting by Joyce Nettles

Run at the Almeida Theater in London June 7-August 6, 2016.

Earth without Art is just “Eh.”

August 9, 2016

Although I’m not that much of a movie-goer—documentaries when appealing ones show up at the Rafael, space-aliens-things-blowing-up-guy-type-adventure flicks with my pal Dave M.—I must confess the very first thing (sometimes only) that I read in the Sunday paper is “Ask Mick.” That would be Mick LaSalle, the SF Chronicle movie-reviewer.

Not the reviews, mind you, though I find (not always) that Mick sees cinema through a particular lens that seems remarkably similar to the one I use myself. In the “Ask Mick” column, however, we get a small glimpse of the inner workings of his intellect, not what he has to say about this or that in a movie, but what stimulates those words. His outlook, so to speak.

Not the minutia of a given film that might drive some commentary, but a way of looking at that same minutia. So one recent Sunday (8.8.16), a reader asked whether Mick’s “criteria” for evaluating a movie, any movie, might have changed over the years.

Here’s what he had to say: “As for changing criteria, I think it would be a mistake to have criteria. To have criteria implies that you have something in mind, some kind of formula or standard against which to measure something as measureless and infinite with possibility as art. That’s not the right wat to encounter the vastness and splendor of creation. You just have to roll with it and see what happens. That leaves open more chance for expansion and discovery.”

Look closely at his words. If you go into a realm of artistic display—a gallery, say, or a play or a poetry reading or a walk into a sculpture garden—with a preconditioned idea of what it is you are going to like, or respond to, or dislike based on that idea—then you have lost something vital in the exchange. “That’s not the right way to encounter the vastness and splendor of creation.”

In all these arts, I know what I like. I know what I want to see, and how casually I may reject something that does not fit into my existing categories. It’s why I haven’t got excited about the newly expanded SF Museum of Modern Art. “You just have to roll with it and see what happens.”

My loss, that.

Because I already know, that when I go I will absolutely see something, the vibrant creative impulse of someone I’ve never heard of in a medium I have little respect for, that will blow me away, that will touch me to my core, that will expand my way of thinking in ways I could never have imagined. “That leaves open more chance for expansion and discovery.”

“those who do not remember history. . . .”

August 2, 2016

You know how the rest of this familiar quotation goes: “Those who do not remember history will be condemned to repeat it.”

But there is more. What about those who are unaware of history? Here in 21st century America, where instant gratification through the internet and Amazon.com is the norm, “history” seems to be that happened, oh, sometime before 1980. Not that anyone should be faulted for thinking that today’s tweets reflect breaking news of great importance, that literature comes from the pens—no, keyboards—of bestselling authors telling us about ourselves, with maybe better sex and more money, that “luxury” is the most compelling selling point of almost any artifact of consumer demand.

So, there is no shame to be associated with being unaware of how this world came to be, and how the freedom to self-indulge in America and the west has arisen from the triumph of “democracy” over the creeping totalitarianism of the 1930s. That was, after all, such a long time ago. And it could never happen here.

So it’s not particularly relevant to the modern world that Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin came to power through the ordinary democratic process of their respective nations. Each were confirmed in their first ascent to power through by election. They consolidated that power through by appealing through their public personae to the basic fears of the electorate: fear of outsiders taking over what was rightfully theirs, fear of an outside world over which they had no control, fear of an overwhelming chaos overtaking the ordered society that seemed to exist only within their national borders.

But notice this, if you will. Each of these men, once in power, acted quickly to consolidate that power, by extending it where it had no right, to see if anyone seriously objected. And when no one did, they extended it still further, using the military to overtake objectives to which they had no right. And when no one seriously objected, they reached further.

No one objected. Not even in the homeland. And as these dictators’ greed for power grew to monstrous proportions, the world in the end was enveloped in total war.

“It can’t happen here.” Oh, yes it can.

The American political process unfolding today is ample proof that fear and ignorance apparently can overrule common sense. The supreme court has shown itself quite willing to cede power to those who most stridently claim it. The Constitution—to some the most holy of modern documents, to others merely a bunch of articles and amendments—can be overridden more easily than you would think, in the context of a war.

In the context of a war woven out of fear. Fear of outsiders, and admiration for despots.

For those who think it can’t happen here, may I recommend two books:

“In the Garden of Beasts” is an inside view of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, before the war started, but after Hitler’s consolidation of power, by that most gifted of modern historians Erik Larsen.

“Last Train from Berlin” by the journalist Howard K. Smith, is a devastating inside look at the collapse of a once-vibrant and democratic society, after the rise of a demagogue has driven his country to destruction.

On Writing. One way to reach a story.

July 28, 2016

I wasn’t a Hemingway fan—having never read a single word of his until a few years ago—and wouldn’t call myself one now. For every captivating short story he has written, there’s another one that is a total loss. A waste of time. I wouldn’t want to emulate that.

But I the very first story of his I ever read, got my attention for some pretty indefinable elements of style. So indefinable that I can’t begin to express what they might have been, but the result was that I kept turning the page even though I didn’t know what was going on in the story or where it was taking place, or who the characters were other than a name or why I should even care about the characters, who had not even been given description.

All I really knew was, that despite my not knowing much of anything, I kept turning the page, and the next page and the next, filling in the blanks out of my own imagination because the author wasn’t going to do it for me.

That’s what I want my readers to do. Keep turning the page.

I didn’t necessarily want to copy Hemingway (as if anyone could) or try to analyze what he had done with that story.

I just wanted my readers to keep turning the page.

So, when I had in mind to re-write a story of mine, that I had done at least two full versions of and did not like either one enough to bother revising, I thought I’d try something. This was at my Maine writing retreat. I’d read a story out of my collected Hemingway, each night as I was falling asleep. Story picked at total random. Fell asleep before I’d got half way through those few pages.

And woke up, and wrote on my story, a page or so.

And did the same the next night and morning, and the next.

And by the end of the fourth morning, I had done what I had always wanted to do with that story. Told it.

Summer Concerts in the Maine Woods: Chamber Music at Monteux

July 15, 2016

It would be hard to find a better or more enjoyable venue to experience of chamber music and symphony than the auditorium at the Pierre Monteux School and Music Festival in Hancock Maine. The room is small—no more than a couple of hundred folding chairs. There are no cheap seats; every single one is no more than fifty feet from the elevated stage. But the best seats are in the front row, and on the chamber music nights (Wednesdays) we found empty ones ready for the taking.

From these you can see the expressions on the faces of the players, the movements of their fingers, the interplay between each of them at the key harmonic moments of the music. And, of course, hear those instruments and the lovely sounds that come from them to be reflected off the high wood ceiling and fill the auditorium. Seen through the wide windows, the oak and birch leaves outside seemed to be nodding in time with the music.

But the best reasons to attend the Wednesday Chamber Music series is the choice of pieces to be performed. Don’t be put off by the term “chamber music.” The selections run the gamut from the most staid and traditional of Beethoven’s Adagio for Trio in B-flat major, Op. 11 to a jazzy upbeat rendering of There Will Never Be Another You that would be right at home in the classiest of cabaret lounges. Some pieces are solo, some with just two or three instruments, and the joy comes from being so close and so in touch with the performance itself.

My own personal favorite of the evening was a haunting rendition of Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 2, ‘Company.’” Daniel Mullins introduced the piece with a few words referring to previous critical appraisal of Glass’s works as being “minimalist” and characterized by repetition, but these words did no justice to the beautiful performance that followed. To my ear, there were layers upon layers of ghostly themes all built on the solid foundation of Carrie Miller’s violincello.

More than once the program of July 13, 2016 brought the crowd to their feet in a thunderous, foot-stomping show of affection and approval. The thunderous finale of the final piece, Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for String Orchestra and Piano, earned just such approval. There were two conductors for the piece; Monteux is a school not just for those who aspire to the highest level of instrumental performance, but for those who would conduct the orchestras in which they will one day perform.

For all of them, Monteux is the place they come to learn. For the rest of us, it is the place we come to listen and to expand our horizon as to just how broad the concept of “chamber music” can be.

Monteux Contact: E-mail: pierremonteuxschool@gmail.com Cell: 207-460-0313 Fax: 207-221-5702

A Long March: From November 15, 1969 to this night

June 2, 2016

I’m not one given to reflecting. “Don’t plan too far the future, don’t look too close the past, don’t be fooled into thinking the next day will be like the last. . . .”

But in the interest of completing a Toastmasters speech from the Storytellers book, I looked back a few years, to a place that on the few times I return to it, brings me pleasure. And dare I say, fifty years on, not a little insight.

NewM obe 11.16.69

I was in college at Marshall U in November of 1969, a sophomore as was my best friend and (though we knew it not at the time) my bride-to-be. November 15 was the scheduled date of the first of several massive marches on Washington D. C.—the “New Mobilization”—to demand an end to the war in Viet Nam. Some of our friends had already left for the march that Friday, some had rented a U-Haul and traveled en masse in the cargo hold. Karen and I had missed that boat.

“Let’s hitch-hike.” So, on Friday afternoon, in the warmest clothes we owned, with $20.00 in the pockets and a blanket against the weather, we stuck out our thumbs and hit the road. By nightfall we were entering the mountains east of Charleston, W.Va., and a light snow was falling. A few rides and many hours later found us on the onramp to I-81 north. Blanket round our shoulders, thumbs out. A long-haul trucker picked us up, kept us warm to the I-70 junction, and left us on the ramp Saturday morning.

We were innocent, K. and I. Heading for the Capitol, woefully unequipped for a long weekend in a city we did not know. Perhaps that innocence showed as a halo above our heads, but more likely something much larger was going on. A flood of like-minded people were going to that same city, as full as idealistic hopes as we were.

A carful or them, on their way to the march from Indiana, stopped and picked us up early that morning before the sheriff could find us on the ramp. “Are you going to the march?” “Yes, hitch-hiked from Marshall.” “Where are you staying?” “We don’t know. We don’t have a place to stay. We don’t know anyone here.” “Then why don’t you stay with us.”

And so we did. We had a place to stay for the next two nights, communal dinners, a ride to the march and back. With all the rest that cold November 15, we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the White House and the government buildings with armed soldiers, rifles at the ready, atop the government buildings. We lent our two voices to the million-odd out there beneath the Washington Monument, thinking that it all meant something.

Perhaps it did. In time, years afterward, Nixon completed the withdrawal from Viet Nam at the end of his first term in office, bringing an end to the war that he had inherited.

Did our voices matter then? Hard to say, now.

When the march was over, our generous hosts on their way back to Indiana dropped us off at the junction of I-70 west and I-81 south, and we thumbed our way home.

Without the generosity of those folks, all of them, who took pity on these two wayward souls on the road with their $20 and their blanket, we might have frozen, or been lost, or never have made it to that march. “How can we ever thank you?” we asked.

Their answer was this. “Whenever you run across someone who needs your help, you can help them.”

Over the years, I have taken that to heart, and done my best in small and personal ways, to reach out from time to time to those I see in need. This thought has shaped much of my life since then.

They won’t know who I am, and I have no idea the names of those who helped us. It was nearly fifty years ago. I’d like to think that, working from their example, I have shown them the thanks that they earned then.

Peace.

P.S. Although no longer married, Karen and I remain friends to this day.

Pacifica Spindrift’s “Inherit the Wind”–a take on the ‘trial of the century’ in a time and place not so far from our own

May 30, 2016

The many good things about Pacifica Spindrift’s new production “Inherit the Wind” (by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee), are amplified imperceptibly by the timely convergence of a classic script as relevant today when first produced in 1955, under the skilled hand of seasoned director Barbara Williams. The complex choreography of a large cast is anchored by some stellar performances in the roles of defense attorney Henry Drummond (Louis Schilling) and head prosecutor Matthew Harrison Brady (John Musgrave) in this courtroom drama based on a 1925 legal case once billed as “the trial of the century.” A substitute high school teacher was accused of violating Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made it unlawful to teach human evolution in any state-funded school.

The trial itself is the battle of the forces of good and evil, of religion and science, of intellectual freedom versus faith-based certainty in the Bible as the source of ultimate truth. This conflict is as crucial in American beliefs today as it was when the play was introduced during the McCarthy era of the late 1950s, or the real trial on which it is based, the famous “Scopes Monkey Trial” of 1925. Think of today’s climate-change deniers versus an overwhelming body of science. Or Wall Street versus common-sense middle-class economics. What, after all, can be taken for the source of a real and final truth in the origin, or in the destiny, of humanity? And if there are differences of opinion, how can they be resolved?

In the play, set in a fictional Hillsboro somewhere in the American South, a schoolteacher has been brought to trial for having taught Darwin’s Origin of Species to a classroom firmly in the grip of Bible-belt beliefs. The world was created, as they believe, at 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. at 9:00 a.m. Any other construct including the millions of years required to make a rock, or to evolve a human being, is heresy. There is a witch-hunt here, and the schoolteacher is the heretic.

An ingeniously spare set allows the town to share stage space with the courtroom where most of the drama takes place. There is room in the background for the large cast of churchgoing townspeople to hold a picnic or conduct a service where the fire-and-brimstone breathing preacher, the reverend Jeremiah Brown (Stanley Scheidlinger) stirs his congregation to a frenzy in anticipation of victory at the coming trial. In the courtroom, prosecutor Brady and the town D.A. (Storm Russell), with the ill-concealed support of the judge (Steve Schwartz) seem to hold all the cards. But Drummond, faced with the refusal of the court to allow any of his witnesses to take the stand, faces up to the deceit. Sparks fly, genuine sparks between these two men sparring in defense of the values each holds most dear, as the battle heats up. The tension is palpable. The outcome in doubt. There are personal stakes at risk—the preacher’s daughter Rachel (Lindsay Shulz) is in love with the heretic teacher, but knows not how to keep his and her father’s love. Her conflicted minutes in the witness stand, the statement of her loosened hair at the play’s conclusion, speak volumes about the transitions her character undergoes.

There is not a false moment in the production. Director Barbara Williams knows the play well, and knows what she wants to say with it, ably seconded by Assistant Director Mae Linh Fatum in the management and seamless choreography of the large cast. Special nod to Annette Abunda’s costume design for allowing the characters to be who they are, rural but not rubes, in a time and place not so far from our own.

Performances: May 20 to June 5, 2016
Fridays – 5/20, 5/27, 6/3 at 8PM
Saturdays – 5/21, 5/28, 6/4 at 8PM
Sundays – 5/22, 5/29, 6/5 at 2PM

At: 1050 Crespi Drive
Pacifica, California 94044
United States

Box Office: (650) 359-8002 info@pacificaspindriftplayers.org

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